Mint Leaves, Sticky Tape and Orange Peel

Peggy Frew begins a short series from Wheeler Centre Unpublished Manuscript Fellows with a reflection on the books she has loved, and what made them so special.

Peggy Frew

Author Peggy Frew

My father is a great lover of classical music. Weekends at the house of my childhood were full of concertos and symphonies, played loudly on the stereo. Every now and then my father would stop what he was doing (fixing something, watching the races on telly with the sound down) and call for us children to be quiet. He’d stand, arms raised, as a cello swooned or a violin trembled. ‘Listen, listen,’ he’d whisper, as we all waited, ‘magic moment.’

Every book I’ve loved has had its own magic moments – glittering jewels that for some reason jump out from the broader beauty of the overall landscape of the writing. And, interestingly, these are what remain with me long after the specifics of plot have faded.

'The starting point for a story or novel for me is always a place, or a feeling, or a moment’s interaction between two characters – the atmosphere, or the magic moment.'

As a writer I’m not very good at plot. It’s something that just doesn’t come naturally. The starting point for a story or novel for me is always a place, or a feeling, or a moment’s interaction between two characters – the atmosphere, or the magic moment. Often the idea is for two different moments – usually a beginning and an end – with a hole in between waiting to be filled. And the filling-in process isn’t usually very straightforward. I seem to need to write my way into understanding something – making a mess as I go – and then, once I’ve figured out what it’s all actually about, I have to go back and fix it, sort of retrofitting the plot and structure.

When I am in the throes of this somewhat onerous stage of the writing process, I can sometimes forget that there’s more to writing than plot. It’s easy to get lost in your own writing, in the process of it – but the way out, back to reality, to perspective, is easy too. I find I only need to forget about my own work for a while, and do some reading.

Over the summer I did just this, and made a return to some old favourites: Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach and Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story. My first time round with both of these books was many years ago – Lilian’s Story as a teenager (borrowing my aunt’s copy on a beach holiday), and The Children’s Bach in my twenties. I was struck – and heartened – on revisiting both of these, by the fact that, while I couldn’t recall much of the actual plot of either, I still had vivid impressions of the overall feel of each book. A very strong sense of atmosphere, and place. I was able to summon these impressions the same way I would a memory of my own, with all the same specific and arbitrary detail. With Lilian’s Story there was a double-faceted memory: of me on the beach with my aunt’s paperback, brushing sand from the pages, the sun hot on my skin; and then of Lilian alone in the glare of her 1900s Sydney school yard, or listening to the creak of her father’s boots as she bends in his dust-mote spangled study for a whipping.

This is true of all books I’ve loved. When I think back to them after some time I’m often unable to recall the exact plot. I might remember that a character dies, or that one character betrays another, but the details will elude me. What I can always remember, though, is a general impression – of mood and setting – and also specific small moments, sometimes descriptions, sometimes bits of dialogue.

The Children’s Bach brings to mind flat Melbourne streets, hot, dry winds, the sharp bravado of eighties fashion, music floating in and out of rooms, and very direct, very Australian speech. There is a scene in which a man’s parents come to visit the man and his family; they bring a gift for the man’s wife – an iron, wrapped in brown paper – and the sticky tape pops as she begins to unwrap it. Just the sound of the tape popping has stayed with me.

Orange peel

Lilian’s Story resonates with grand, elemental images – earth, sun and water, skies and stars; the dawn air on Lilian’s face as she wakes from one of her many nights spent sleeping rough, in bushland or a city park. There are magic moments everywhere: in the straggling underarm hairs escaping from a rip in Lilian’s eccentric neighbour’s dress; in the discs of orange peel Lilian applies to her feet while sunbathing in the yard of the institution she is eventually confined to for her own ‘madness’, and the pale circles of skin created by them.

In emphasising the importance of atmosphere, I don’t mean to discount how much characters matter. Characters, to me, present themselves in a similar way to atmosphere or setting – they are there, separate from plot; they exist, and go on existing once the book has been closed. I may not remember exactly what a character does, or what happens to them, but they are there in my memory – their appearance, their mannerisms, their speech – just as full of life as the world they inhabit. When thinking of Lilian’s Story it’s impossible not to think of Lilian – such a huge character, literally and otherwise. There is an intensity to Grenville’s descriptions – everything, beautiful, ugly and ordinary, is right there in front of you, close and bright and real – and this intensity is Lilian’s; it’s the way she experiences her world.

Stories written by young children are often all plot, a list of actions, devoid of description. Something happens and then something else happens, and then even more things happen. I’m sure I wrote stories like that as a kid. But then, in my late teens and early twenties, I got into this whole experiential and impressionistic, mood-piece kind of writing. Maybe I was too young to have anything interesting to write about, or maybe my writing wasn’t yet about trying to communicate something, or pin down some idea or concept, I don’t know – for whatever reason, a good deal of what I wrote was rambling, slow, laden with emotion, and completely without plot. A character (usually a young woman like myself) would drift along, breathing the smells, feeling the air and the ground underfoot, hearing noises, observing whatever was around her. Everything was slow and quite intense, and there would often seem to be profound and terrible meanings invested in the things she experienced, though these were never made explicit. It was a bit like Katherine Mansfield on valium, and it demonstrated, through its lack of it, exactly why plot is so integral to a good story. I guess this was just writing for the joy of writing – a completely unexamined outpouring – and an embarrassing but probably necessary rite of passage.

'Characters, to me, present themselves in a similar way to atmosphere or setting – they are there, separate from plot; they exist, and go on existing once the book has been closed.'

A novel that I’m sure was partly responsible for a lot of that writing is The Mint Lawn, by Gillian Mears. This is not at all to imply that Mears is guilty of plotless writing – she is, however, a master of atmosphere; her writing is one of the best examples of that particular strain of very experiential and mood-based Australian literature much celebrated in the early nineties. (The Mint Lawn won the Vogel Prize in 1990.) My mother brought this novel back from the Adelaide Writers Festival, and I read it, aged about 16, in my cold Melbourne bedroom, and fell in love with Mears’s languorous prose, as warm and deep as the sunlit brown rivers of her northern New South Wales setting.

I actually can remember the plot of The Mint Lawn (probably because I must have read the book at least four times), but it will always be secondary in my mind to the richness of Mears’s descriptions, the incredible vitality of her characters, the completeness, the realness of the setting. The chemical sweetness of the mint-leaf lollies consumed by Clementine, the ex-school-prefect barely in her twenties and already lost in her own life, as she rides idly around the small town she’s never left, knees bumping against the handlebars of her outgrown bike.

So in my darkest hour, when I’m feeling particularly desperate about plot, there is always the consolation of returning to magic moments like Mears’s mint leaves, Garner’s sticky tape and Grenville’s orange peel, and the worlds they invoke. It’s reassuring to connect again with atmosphere, to be reminded of its worth, its sublime power, and above all, its longevity.

Portrait of Peggy Frew

Peggy Frew's first novel, House of Sticks, won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript by an Emerging Victorian Writer, and was shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Prize for New Writing. Hope Farm, her second novel, won the Barbara Jefferis Award, was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award.